Not crying Woolf: This production deserves to sell out, and probably will

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Key points

  • THEATRE Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? returns to the Melbourne stage
  • MUSIC The Australian Chamber Orchestra takes an unexpected turn

This wrap of shows around Melbourne includes a scorching production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and a spectacular performance by the Australian Chamber Orchestra – with a surprise appearance.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ★★★★
Red Stitch, until December 17

The eviscerating games of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are focused, in this intimate production, through an acutely voyeuristic lens. You’ll be scorched by its marital savagery, even from the back row.

David Whiteley, Emily Goddard, Harvey Zielinski and Kat Stewart in a scene from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.Credit: Jodie Hutchinson

Hands down the most iconic portrayal of George and Martha – an educated married couple in a state of “total war” – came from Richard Burton and Liz Taylor in the 1966 Mike Nichols film. They were spouses in real life, so it’s a point of interest for theatregoers that actors Kat Stewart and David Whiteley are married, too… though one hopes in a less tempestuous arrangement than the one Burton and Taylor are reputed to have endured.

Whatever tranquillity Stewart and Whiteley may enjoy offstage gets cast aside the moment their art takes over and George and Martha come to life.

These performances ride into battle, weapons of choice drawn, and the abusive relationship assumes an inevitability, but also an alertness to the genuine intimacy created through all the power plays and psychological cruelties and the warped labyrinth of truth and fiction in which their histrionic blood sport plays out.

Nothing turns physical beauty to ugliness more surely than viciousness, and Stewart is unafraid to go there. Hers is a flailing, desperate Martha, blighted by alcoholism and embittered by the confines of patriarchy.

Trapped between a powerful and absent Daddy “with red eyes” and a beta-male husband whose career is treading water, the only outlets for Martha’s personal ambition are sexual conquest and the pathetic fantasies of domesticity – some idealised, some toxic – she confects with George.

As she pours emasculating vitriol over him in tactical strikes, Whiteley’s George plays the long game. His strategy to destroy their younger guests (Harvey Zielinski and Emily Goddard) seems to rise compulsively from the destructive arsenal of academic life, and Whiteley stitches all the intellectual conceit, passive-aggression, and crushed creativity he can into his portrayal.

Kat Stewart plays a flailing, desperate Martha, blighted by alcoholism and embittered by the confines of patriarchy.Credit: Jodie Hutchinson

Stewart and Whiteley are unforgettable as Martha and George. They bring a glamorous edge to the roles and you get the impression that their youthful-looking two-headed monster is staving off another kind of madness. George describes it by referencing catatonics who “don’t age in the usual sense; the underuse of everything leaves them quite whole.” And tellingly, he first excuses their shameless displays of marital discord by saying, “Martha and I are merely exercising.” Perhaps he’s right.

True, we could be left with a stronger taste of the younger couple as a George and Martha in the making, but director Sarah Goodes does a terrific job of guiding fully inhabited and emotionally volatile performances, while also leaving enough interpretive ambiguity to have you chewing over the play on the way home.

I’d book early. This production deserves to sell out, and probably will.
Reviewed by Cameron Woodhead

Chopin and The Mendelssohns ★★★★
Australian Chamber Orchestra, Hamer Hall, November 19

The surprise appearance of an English composer made for some unexpected comparisons in this Australian Chamber Orchestra program billed to explore the music of Frederic Chopin and his contemporaries Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn.

Pianist Polina Leschenko and ACO Director Richard Tognetti.Credit: Nic Walker

After having joined the ACO’s Richard Tognetti in a barnstorming rendition of Felix Mendelssohn’s youthful Concerto for Violin and Piano in D minor, Russian-born pianist Polina Leschenko was to have returned after interval to perform Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor. Unfortunately, Leschenko who has been managing a medical condition, was unable to continue. Ever resourceful, the ACO offered Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending as a makeweight.

Given a highly atmospheric reading, this English interlude saw Tognetti’s lark take flight, buoyed by a wonderful improvisatory feel and a gentle intensity that may well have been generated by the sudden circumstances of the performance.

This evocation of the English countryside was a fine palate cleanser after Felix Mendelssohn’s enthusiastically eclectic double concerto. Influenced by the music of Bach, Beethoven and Haydn, the 14-year-old Mendelssohn confected a work crammed full of solo opportunities which Leschenko and Tognetti grasped with alacrity. Displaying a quick-witted synergy, the pair brought equal measures of brilliance and poetry to their task.

Finally stepping out of her brother’s shadow, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel can now be seen as an accomplished composer in her own right. Inventive and appealing, her String Quartet in E-flat major worked well arranged for string orchestra. A grand opening Adagio gave way to a delightful pizzicato-studded Scherzo based on Paganini’s La Campanella. The rather earnest Romanze was offset by a sunny, bustling Finale in which Tognetti set a cracking pace, almost daring the orchestra to keep pace with its galloping unison writing.

Although missing some fine Chopin, the unexpected presence of an English lark offered enticing romanticism of a different kind.
Reviewed by Tony Way

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